Saturday, January 14, 2017

Small Matters

1. When a word ends with an -ing, chances are overwhelming that the word will, under close examination, be a gerund.

2. You like gerunds on the same approximate level where you fancy vanilla ice cream, which is to day you enjoy vanilla ice cream for its flavor if a serious, intense vanilla governs its personality. For the most part, you like vanilla because it provides conveyance for berries, cherries, and, ever so much more, persimmons.

3. You like gerunds because they provide  conveyance for adverbs, a part of speech you do your best to shun, much in the manner you shun white potatoes rather than sweet potatoes or yams.

4. You don't spend much time thinking about gerunds, but when you do, you tend to visualize a gerund as a verb that has been caught stretching the way a runner stretches before a race. A gerund is a verb in motion, stretching, perhaps even yawning; it is a verb in preparation for action. A gerund may become a noun, which fascinates you because of the potential for ambiguity. A verb form that is also a noun. Wow.

5. Your literary agent is more apt to lose her composure when reading something of yours that has numerous gerunds as opposed to the times she reads work of yours that appears to be wanting in gerunds.

6. What follows has nothing to do with gerunds. If a gerund were to appear in it, you'd rewrite the sentence.

One afternoon, you were scheduled to deliver a lecture, which is not an unusual thing; you've been in a position to lecture the sort of lecture you were scheduled to deliver that afternoon for well over thirty years.

One more thing, you are often distracted by details.

Not any old detail, rather one of some quirky individuality or substance.

On the afternoon of the lecture you have in mind, you were driven to the site where the lecture was to be presented. You'd never been to this site--9 The Close, Winchester SO23 9LS England--before. The official designation of the site is The Winchester Cathedral.

Two memorable things about the occasion:

A. Nearly a year after the lecture was given, a barista in the Montecito, CA Starbucks, when she handed you your latte, asked you if you'd ever given a lecture in Winchester Cathedral. This caused you to conclude that she had been present at the time.

B. While you were absorbed in the magnificent archetectural details of Winchester Cathedral, a dear friend said, "Mind you don't step on Jane."

Most of your observations at that point were either eye level of head craned back, tourist style. With all the eye- and ceiling-level details to command your attention, you'd not looked down. Only when you did were you able to see what your friend meant.

You were about to step on Jane Austen.

Under no circumstances would you wish to do so.

Admire, yes. Step on? No.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Una Voce Poco Fa

Every time you leave the quiet of your home work area to write in one of your favorite local coffee shop, you're reinventing a wheel you already designed thirty or forty years ago, when you already had a quiet place to work.

You already know the purpose driving you out of your quiet home turf and into the ambient chatter of coffee houses. In order to put yourself into your sentences, you need focus to overcome the ambient chatter within your head. Among the voices and conversations therein, you hear voices of your own mentors, more often women than men. 

All of these women had the necessary focus to capture sentences with themes and intent, leaving the more mundane sentences of received wisdom and convention to flitter themselves away unnoticed.

Also in residence within your head, the voices of various cultures and traditions into which you'd been born, strayed into by error, or took on with the enthusiasm of a convert. The received standards of your times, the prequel school days to the current common core. In addition, your own inherent prejudices and bigotry took hold, lumps of mold on the growing block of cheese you were becoming.

You wished to quiet all such voices in order to hear some cruising idea that had caught your fancy and were now trying to articulate. This is how your own process and the intent behind it began. You were trying to make sense of things.

A baby in a high chair drops a spoon, is overwhelmed with joy to watch it fall with a clatter to the floor. Soon as Mummy retrieves it--and she is sure to--baby connects a sequence of events. Next challenge, find out how many times Mummy will retrieve the spoon before moving baby's ass into another room or shoving a toy or pacifier at him/her. Okay, possibility the baby is an incipient genius, is already wondering if a dropped spoon falls slower, faster, or same speed as a cereal bowl.

You're in many ways the baby with the spoon, except that you have words, even know how to diagram sentences, even know the difference between the subject of a sentence, its acting-out surrogate, the verb or predicate, and the object acted upon. The ball was hit by him. He hit the ball. The ball was hit by him for a home run. He hit a home run.

You are often the subject of your sentences,sometimes the object, trying to wrap yourself around the right verb to convey the meaning you intend. If it is cold in here, does that mean you are cold, or are you inured to such things?

You listen to sentences for clues that will help you understand what you see, say what you mean, order pizza over the telephone. You listen to voices of your choice, hopeful they will turn out to be landmarks by which you can measure your progress on a particular journey.

Sometimes you hear inner and outer voices at the same time, trying to hustle you with their agenda, questioning your motives, not understanding your stories. These are the voices you sometimes leave home to avoid. Even as you leave, you understand how some of these voices will hitch on to you, ride with you. And there will be additional voices where ever you decide to go for coffee.

For the longest time, you heard voices explaining to you that you needed to have a voice of your own in order to be able to tell a story. You even find yourself at times speaking of a writer who has found her voice, mindful of how easy it is to have your own voice drowned out by voices from all about you, including from within, wondering where the fuck you think you're going.

You go to coffee houses for the coffee and to have to assemble your purpose to filter out the voices inside and about you. Then you have a chance at hearing, recognizing, and, thus, finding the voices of the sentences you need to get the explanations you seek.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

One-sentence Days

Under the most extreme circumstances, you're able to churn out ten or twelve pages a day, hopeful two or three are keepable. Under circumstances of equal extremity, there have been days where your output was one keepable page.

You'd been at many book award ceremonies by the time you sat in the large penthouse reception suite at the LA Times for their annual book awards. On this particular evening, you were seated directly behind the author you hoped would win the fiction award. Next to her was the editor you hoped would soon be yours as well.

In your memory, the room buzzed with the enthusiasm of people who cared about books, reviewed them, wrote them, and published them. You wore a name tag identifying you as a reviewer for the LA Times. You were a poker-playing friend of the book review editor, on a first-name basis with the regular mystery fiction reviewer.

You felt at the time the way you feel after finishing the work on an essay, a review, a short story, a novel--tired, depleted, a race run and, with luck, won. You felt yourself ready for whatever came your way as a writer.

When the editor was called on to introduce her author, you knew Louise Erdrich had won the fiction award for Love Medicine. You listened fascinated by her story of reading the days work to her husband in the kitchen, after the children were put to bed, and how, over a pot of coffee,they discussed the work. 

Your fascination turned to awe when she spoke of the night when, overcome with doubt, she interrupted her reading. Manuscript in hand, she marched to the kitchen door, stepped into the yard, and tossed the entire manuscript.

She'd lived at the time in one of the New England states. The time of year was winter. The yard was coated with snow.

She spoke of her then husband, out in the yard with a flashlight, retrieving all the pages.

You'd filled your share of wastebaskets with the crumpled wretches of pages yanked from the typewriter. The thought of so evocative and penetrating a writer throwing things away was a wrench you've never forgotten.

In the years since, the technology has changed from typewriter to computer, which means you accomplish discards with less drama and wasted paper, but the need to discard remains. There are days when output means finding the name for a particular character. There are one-sentence days, when you understand you've achieved something tangible when you produce a single sentence that means what it and you say.

There are days when you feel some person has set out to prank you by inserting sentences and tropes lacking in continuity or meaning.

There are days when your literary agent has told you what a loser your protagonist is and demonstrates to you how you've let the story run out of gas.

Your excitement at sitting behind Louise Erdrich and rooting for her to win the LA Times Book Award remains. Your hidden dream of someday having Patricia Strahan as your editor persists. Because of the many books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux you admired, you quite naturally nourish dreams of seeing your name on their list.

You are fortunate in another historical sense. You did not come to understand how difficult writing was until you were hopelessly committed to it.

One-sentence days await like parking lot panhandlers, wondering if you have any spare change.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Game faces

A scene is the dramatic unit equivalent to diplomatic negotiation. Representatives from the various points of interest need to be present in some setting or arena. All parties involved enter the setting with some attitude toward a specific topic. The topic may be historic, recent, or a combination of the two.

Sometimes the topic involves matters so sensitive that insignificant details such as seating arrangements, shapes of tables, and yes or no to flowers need attention before substantive matters can be entertained. The higher the passions of the negotiators, the greater the substance of minor details becomes. The more pissed you are going in, the greater your chances for losing it over a trifle. 

The dramatic and diplomatic scene often begins with an agreed upon agenda or the agenda's second cousin, an attempt to produce an agenda. Here we are. Without admitting neglect or fault, here's what we will be talking about.

In order to agree what we will be talking about, we need to agree on a definition of the matter we are here to discuss. You, for instance, were introduced to the topic of what most parties to the matter would agree was the American war fought between 1861 and 1865. 

When you first learned of it, you were living in Los Angeles, where it was presented to you as The Civil War. When you moved to the East, and, later, to New England, the event was known as the Civil War and The War between the States. When you lived in Florida, it was known as The War of Northern Aggression. 

Fiction presents delicious opportunities when the various parties believe they are gathering to discuss A, but each party believes its interpretation of A to be the correct meaning. The reader is left to understand that each party differs, a condition referred to as dramatic irony.

More delicious dramatic courses are served while the negotiators grow more suspicious of each other, which causes major distrust and stubbornness. The menu has not yet been decided. We don't know yet if the salad proceeds or follows the soup course much less do we have a hint about whether the salad shall be dressed with oil and vinegar.

Diplomats are often seen as calm, detached persons, immersed in the polite give-and-take of negotiation, compromise, and the chiropractic manipulation of results to reflect victory for all sides. Such visions are more palatable than manipulative or cynical ones, but experienced readers know game faces when they see them.

Experienced readers want scenes with gloves off, bruised knuckles visible. Diplomats clink champagne flutes after they conclude negotiations, toasting what we think of as civility and accord. 

Experienced writers see scenes as pending files. There is a motive behind each clink of the champagne flute. Experienced readers wait with none too much patience for the gloves and game faces to come off.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Garrote

One of your oldest and dearest friends was an English writer, who sent his tennis shorts to the cleaners, preferred a biscuit called a digestive, and used a memorable way for squeezing the most stubborn drops of tea from a teabag.

To this day, years after you first saw the activity in progress, you cannot yourself drink tea or watch someone else, in real time or TV drama, take tea without recalling the process. He'd fish the tea bag from his cup using his left hand to maneuver the spoon under the bag.

Next, he'd wind the teabag string around the bag and spoon, tightening each successive wrap as though it were a tourniquet.  This operation was conducted over the teacup. The result was a darker, stronger tea than a simple swishing of the bag or allowing it to steep for several minutes. Hot, strong tea. You called it garrote tea. Your friend called it a proper cup.

You mention the garrote process now because you are in the midst of composition and because you do--or try to do--the equivalent of your friend's approach to every sentence you write, often taking longer than you'd expected to write such simple things as emails, notes to students, and the sentences of your fiction, which have an early tendency to get away from you, like a dropped garden hose, turned on to full volume.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were some string you could wrap about each sentence to garrote out the strongest, most emphatic meaning?

There is such a string; it is called revision, which can mean a literal change in word length or order of entire sentences and paragraphs, or the figurative change of such elements of storytelling as a shift in point of view, a reordering of sentences and paragraphs, even the number of characters chosen to bring the story to the stage or the page.

In a specific and figurative sense, the garroted sentence is the thing that separates the men writers from the boy writers and the women writers from the girl writers; it is from time to time exquisite in its brevity and the memorable truth contained within that short cluster of words. Examples of such sentences start with "Come here." "Go away." "Fuck no." and "I love you."

The well-crafted garrote sentence can be Faulknerean in its simultaneous awareness of the present and the past. The well-crafted sentence can also become unforgettable in the same way James M. Cain's opening sentence to The Postman Always Rings Twice has captured resonance. "They threw me off the haytruck at about noon."

Sometimes, when you are in bed, awaiting sleep, you play with a sentence like that. "It was about noon when they threw me off the haytruck."  "They didn't throw me off the hayrack until noon."

You could say the author made the right choice. But you can't say for certain when he made that choice. Suppose the right choice came out right away. Good for James M. Cain.

Sometimes, when in bed, waiting for sleep, you come forth with a sentence that frightens you with its force and clarity. You push yourself out of bed to write it down because of all the past times when you were sure you'd remember such gems. And all the times when your certainty did you no good.

For all your attempts to think and write with clarity, for all the edits you've done on your own work and the work of others, you'd think you'd have the process installed at muscle memory. But you still need the garrote. With plenty of string.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Voice

You may well ask what communication there is between father and son in a game of catch, played out in a back yard? The father is a plainspoken person, not given to long sentences or philosophy. The son is of an age where anything, even baseball, seems possible, although he worries his size at the moment will be a barrier.

The father is often the one to suggest the games of catch although the son cannot recall a time when he broached the idea and was told the equivalent of "come back later."

The son demonstrates his adeptness at building a vocabulary. He is better at this than most persons he knows.

The father, who has spent much of his youth and early married life trying to settle into a way of keeping his family afloat and his ego intact, continues to impress upon his son the mantra the son accepts more on faith than the understanding that may be poised in the wings, waiting for its cue. "Whatever you are, be a good one."

This particular backyard game of catch of which you write took place early one Spring, where a primary goal for the son was being good enough at baseball to be chosen for sandlot teams, for pick-up games, for such ephemera as peer regard, team spirit, personal reputation, and meaningful direction.

Long moments passed in which the only communication was the exchange of possession of a baseball, from father to son, from son to father. The accompanying sounds were the smack of the ball into each glove, the son's first-baseman's mitt, the father's tattered fielder's glove. This exchange was sufficient for the son. With each catch, he was less self-conscious about the anomaly between his size and the height of most first-basemen, regardless of their team.

The afternoon reached its primary dramatic peak when the father removed his pocket watch, noted the time, then strode to a radio on the nearby porch. The father turned on the radio, waited for sound, adjusted it to his liking, then returned to the game of catch.  "Any moment now," he said.

Both father and son continued to throw the baseball, each to the other, the father perhaps more aware this game of catch was subtext for conversation.  At the proper moment, the father cautioned the son to listen. "What you are about to hear is the voice of baseball as it is known in our house. There are other voices of baseball, but none like this. Voices will come and go, but this voice will remain."

The voice you heard belonged to Walter Lanier Barber, who often referred to himself as "the old redhead." You were introduced to him as he called a baseball game for his employers, the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the voice of the Dodgers, thoughtful, elegant, eloquent, unpreturbable.

Over the years, you've heard Mel Allen and Phil Rizutto broadcast on behalf of the New York Yankees; you've heard Jay Hanna Dean, also known as Dizzy. You've evolved with each of these as they, and their voices, evolved from radio description to television commentary.

You could make the argument that each of these voices were prequels to Vin Scully, whom you do consider transcendental in his presentation of baseball or anything else he'd care to talk about.

But your father--he who played endless catch with you--was right. The voice of baseball is Red Barber.

You've grown apart from baseball, but not its voice. From that voice, you've learned that everything you can see and a great many things such as fear and dread that you cannot see all have voices.

Sometimes you wonder if the thunk, thunk of the baseball, hitting your glove and then your father's, is your aural equivalent of comfort food. The sound of communication. The growing awareness of your wish to be chosen for the pick-up team of writers and poets, the men and women who listen for the sounds of things, then put them into words.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Act. Your.Adjective.

For most of your life, including well into the present day, you've been told to act your age. When you first heard this request, you were young enough for the advice to cancel itself out; you were acting your age. Even then, you understood that friends and adults in some position or other over your education wished for you to act older than your age.

They meant for you to bring your behavior skills into a closer range to your intellectual and perceptual skills. They wanted you to act older than your age. What they truly wished was for you to become serious.

When you put on a few years, the suggestion for you to act your age began to change into the question, When are you going to get serious?  You never intended to emulate Peter Pan. You looked forward to growing up. You liked the concept of maturation. You wished to be the verb mature and its adjective. But you wished to do so on your own terms, which had nothing to do with seriousness.

You wished to engage mature as verb and adjective with a low ratio of seriousness, little more than twenty percent against an eighty percent of mischief, humor, and the ability to see the wry anomalies and ironies in full bloom everywhere you looked.  

Your hopes for this ratio of seriousness to mischief were dashed when you became distracted by the tools you'd thought to use to make your way in the world. Those tools were words. If you'd gone on about your business with the thought of words as tools, you'd doubtless saved yourself time. You used words to disguise your lack of seriousness, thinking that longer sentences, a taste for recondite vocabulary, and a dash of arcane factoids would convince everyone about you that you were serious.

But you were not serious at all, you were that one quality every writer dreads. You were boring.

Even now, when you still have issues about acting your age, the antennae of awareness you've developed over the years pick up hints that you have stepped over the threshold to the point where you project attitudes, words, and thoughts that bore.

By now, you've developed skills, not so remarkable as a hound who can nose out truffles, but still abilities that allow you to sniff out the words that cloud the issue of what you wish to say and how you say it. In the process, you're learning how seriousness can be a useful pose for slipping a subversive tract into an unsuspecting mailbox.